Going for an English all over again: Goodness Gracious Me returns

‘Goodness Gracious Me’, back after 13 years, is topical all right. The characters want to join Ukip

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It’s the oldest maxim in showbiz: never go back. And yet that is exactly what the four cast-members of Goodness Gracious Me have done.

Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Syal, and Nina Wadia have reunited for a one-off special of their popular sketch show, 13 years after it was last on our screens. It will be broadcast at 10pm on Monday 26 May, as part of BBC Two’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

Goodness Gracious Me – the title plays on the cliched way in which Asians used to be depicted in British comedy – was a big hit when it first ran between 1996 and 2001. The first British-Asian sketch show, it enjoyed two successful series on Radio 4 before transferring to BBC Two for three more, highly-regarded seasons.

Goodness Gracious Me was the first comedy programme to reflect – and send up – the experiences of second-generation immigrants from the sub-continent. Crucially, it succeeded at the same time in appealing to a wide audience. It picked up the Best Entertainment gong at the Broadcasting Press Guild Awards and the Team Award from the Royal Television Society, both in 1999. Meanwhile, the show’s most celebrated sketch, “Going for an English” – in which a bunch of drunken locals in an English restaurant in India replicate the boorish behaviour of post-pub louts over here ordering food in a British curry house – was voted the sixth Greatest Comedy Sketch in a 2008 Channel 4 poll.

Despite – or perhaps because of – this pedigree, 50-year-old Bhaskar admits he was at first apprehensive about reviving the show. “Was I nervous? Yes. I may well have been the last of us to agree to revisit it. My initial concern was that we could end up doing cover versions of our greatest hits and that people would then inevitably say, ‘it’s not as good as it was’. We didn’t just want to recreate past glories.

“So I didn’t want to do it unless we had something contemporary to say. The question of relevance was vital for me. What convinced me to do it was the conversations we had when we met up to discuss ideas. We ended up with a surfeit of good material. We could have filled the half-hour show two or three times over.”

Syal, who with her husband Bhaskar is one of the lead writers on Goodness Gracious Me, agrees. “Twenty years have gone by since we started. In that time, a whole new generation and a whole load of new issues have emerged, and India has changed dramatically.”

The comedian, who has also co-starred with Bhaskar in the Emmy Award-winning spoof chat show, The Kumars at No 42, adds that, “Our initial nerves disappeared after two hours in a room together. There was also that delight in thinking, ‘Right, I’ve got to do 10 different characters today – where’s me wig?’”

So, is the old magic still there? It’s a ‘yes’ from me. The performers have injected new energy into such perennial favourites as such Mrs “I Can Make It at Home for Nothing” (Wadia) and Mr “Everything Comes from India” (Bhaskar).

Beyond that, the rebooted Goodness Gracious Me has come right up to date with some choice topical material. One sketch, for example, concerns a xenophobic Indian newspaper, which reports a rise in British and American tourists as, “Country swamped by white invaders... India buried under a pasty blanket of lazy freeloaders.”

There is also a clever skit that could have been ripped from today’s headlines about the Kapoors (pronounced “Coopers”) and the Rabindranaths (pronounced “Robinsons”). The couples, who are desperate to be more English than anyone else, are attempting to become Ukip candidates. But they are put off when a Ukip representative tells them the party welcomes people from all races. “Well, I don’t like the sound of that,” Mr Kapoor snorts, “Maybe we’ll try the BNP.”

Syal emphasises that this sort of newsy sketch is very much their terrain. “We’ve always done satire. That’s our job. I feel we’d be selling ourselves short if we weren’t pushing the boundaries a little.” Like many of their best skits in Goodness Gracious Me, this sketch uses role-reversal to expose some of the more egregious prejudices. All in all, it seems the show has aged very well.

While conceding that, “I’m sure some people will take offence,” Bhaskar stresses that it is mirth, not manifestos, which drives their comedy. “From the outset, our primary directive has been to amuse each other. Any political messages have always been secondary. We’d rather people got a sense of our politics from our humour, rather than the other way round.”

Over the past 18 years, Goodness Gracious Me has in its own way played a part in altering the way in which British Asians are regarded. “Some people just didn’t believe British Asians could have a sense of humour – there was no template for it, even for us,” muses Bhaskar.

“The immigrant mentality of our parents’ generation was: ‘Keep your head down and work hard. You’re guests in another country.’ So when we started doing jokes about our community, we were breaking new ground, although we didn’t realise it at the time. “Disappointingly, Goodness Gracious Me did not presage a new wave of British Asian comedies. Bhaskar sighs that he, “hoped it would open more doors”. For the time being, however, we should focus on welcoming the comeback of Goodness Gracious Me.

“We’ve consciously aged the characters up,” observes Syal. “For instance, the Competitive Mothers are now the Competitive Grandmothers. But the main thing is, it’s still glorious fun to make. I hope that comes across.”

The ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ special is at 10pm on BBC2 on Monday 26 May

Where are they now?

Sanjeev Bhaskar

Sanjeev Bhaskar has had a double-Emmy-Award-winning hit with his spoof BBC2 (and later Sky) chat show, The Kumars at No 42. He has also starred in the movies London Boulevard and Arthur Christmas, BBC1’s drama series, The Indian Doctor, and the ITV sitcom, Mumbai Calling. In addition, he has presented the BBC2 documentary series India with Sanjeev Bhaskar. In 2008, he played King Arthur in the West End musical, Spamalot. He is currently shooting Terry Jones’s new comic movie, Absolutely Anything, opposite Simon Pegg and Kate Beckinsale.

Kulvinder Ghir

Kulvinder Ghir has appeared as Teetu in the hit movie, Bend it Like Beckham and as Taj’s father in the film, Van Wilder 2: the Rise of Taj. He starred in the RSC production of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. He played Ramesh in two series of the ITV sitcom, My Life as a Popat, and took the role of Subadar in C4’s epic, Bafta and RTS Award-winning, adaptation of the William Boyd novel Any Human Heart. He was most recently seen earlier this month in the Sky drama, The Cruise.

Meera Syal

Meera Syal has starred in screen versions of her two novels, Anita and Me and Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee. Also, she has worked alongside her husband Bhaskar (playing his grandmother, no less) on The Kumars at No 42. She has starred, too, in The Secretary Who Stole £4 Million, The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, Jekyll, Horrible Histories, Beautiful People and Doctor Who. She is now in production on The Brink, a major new HBO geopolitical thriller with Jack Black.

Nina Wadia

Nina Wadia starred as Neena in C4’s adaptation of the Zadie Smith best-seller, White Teeth, and Rupinder in the BBC1 sitcom, All About Me (in which Syal also had a leading role). Wadia has also taken substantial roles in Perfect World, Waking the Dead, Skins, Doctor Who, Keith Lemon: the Film and Still Open All Hours. From 2007 until last year, she played the part of Zainab in 453 episodes of EastEnders.